Facing a stream of special events that might attract terrorists, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced plans Monday to bolster the nation's security on two fronts.
Ridge said he's creating a government task force to better coordinate public and private security in the hope of preventing terrorist attacks and protecting high-profile targets such as Las Vegas.
"With so many symbolic gatherings in the next few months, we must be aggressive. These targets of opportunity for the terrorists are opportunities that can't be missed to tighten our security," Ridge said during a speech to the Radio Television News Directors Association and Foundation in Las Vegas.
"Wherever possible, we will ratchet it up," Ridge said.
Later, Ridge met with local and state authorities to announce the expansion of the Homeland Security's computer-based counterterrorism communications network that delivers secure, real-time information.
Beginning with the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend, a series high-profile public events this year might make attractive targets for al-Qaida and like-minded terrorist groups, Ridge told the RTNDA conference.
With the new task force, Homeland Security officials will be joined by representatives from nine Cabinet-level agencies to try to improve coordination as the government works to secure critical infrastructure and increase the nation's readiness.
Ridge said officials don't have specific intelligence about possible attacks. But based on analysis, the government is focusing on potential targets that include next month's war memorial dedication, the June meeting in Georgia of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, large gatherings nationwide for Fourth of July celebrations, the July Democratic convention in Boston, the August Republican convention in New York and the August Olympics in Athens.
Jose Maria Aznar, outgoing prime minister of Spain and a strong U.S. ally in the war in Iraq, has warned President Bush that terrorists may try to affect the U.S. elections in November, as they did in Spain with the Madrid train bombings March 11. Nearly 200 died, and Aznar's ruling Popular Party lost to a rival calling for the pullout of Spanish troops from Iraq.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that the United States is bracing for possible attacks before the elections.
Ridge, however, said the elections are not the factor in forming the "working group," which still lacks an official name. "Depending on how the terrorists interpret Spain's response - whether it did or did not impact - is almost immaterial to this effort," he said. "Again, we know we are the No. 1 target."
Even though the nation spends most of its time at yellow alert - the middle of a five-point terror warning spectrum - Ridge said security is still stronger than it was a year ago and will improve.
Extensive plans are in the works to protect the party conventions and the G-8 meeting, which have been classified as National Security Special Events. The designation - a concept that evolved from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta - brings heightened security coordinated by Homeland Security's Secret Service agency.
To improve security operations for these and other high-profile events, Ridge said his department is leaning on its authority from two of Bush's homeland-security directives to create the task force, which will also work with industry, governors and police and other first responders.
Ridge told Nevada officials that the computer network will be expanded to all 50 states, five territories, Washington, D.C., and 50 other major urban areas to strengthen the flow of threat information.
To increase readiness and reaction to a terrorist act, Nevada was awarded about $36.8 million by the Department of Homeland Security on Monday. More than $10 million of that goes to Clark County, the state's most populous county and home to the Las Vegas Strip and its megaresorts.
Ridge acknowledged that Las Vegas, which sees about 36 million visitors a year, is a place terrorists would consider attacking.
"It's a strategic city," Ridge said. "It makes it an attractive target."